Internal struggles and painful honesty make J.A. Bayona’s fairytale much, much more than your average boy-and-his-monster story. Bring tissues.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Things are not going well for twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall). He’s frequently bullied at school and is having to face the prospect of moving in with his overbearing, grouchy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), as his own mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from terminal cancer. To top things off, he experiences nightmares every night, in which the tree from a nearby graveyard becomes a towering monster (a mo-capped Liam Neeson) headed his way. The monster, however, reveals its intentions are to tell Conor stories, which he must interpret to help him come to terms with his mother’s illness.
It’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) has made A Monster Calls for. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, it’s coming-of-age outline would suggest that it is geared toward a younger audience, but its dark themes of grief, guilt, anger and coping with impending death are perhaps a bit too heavy and mature for kids. However, it’s fantastical and fairytale stylings, as well as its point of view of an adolescent boy could limit its appeal to adults. And yet Bayona’s film, which could be labelled the work of a visionary, has elements that will resonate with viewers of all ages.
Like his first two films, this is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is devastating – it’s without a doubt Bayona’s most visually accomplished film to date. He blends three visual mediums together to envision his fable, and the results are enormously effective and rewarding. There’s the live action, captured in exquisitely soft golds and greys by director of photography Oscar Faura, warming and cooling to fit the many moods the film goes through. There’s extraordinary CGI work from Félix Bergés and Pau Costa, whose monster is an incredibly detailed and jaw-dropping spectacle to behold, a far more ingenuitive and convincing tree-being than Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. And there’s some truly stunning traditional animation that brings the monster’s stories to life; inspired by the illustrations of Jim Kay (who crafted the drawings we see Conor and his mother penning in the film), these sequences are like water paintings come to life, and are a hypnotic and grandiose feat.
Combined together, they make a unique and magnificent experience, but unlike most effects-driven monster movies, they work in harmony and exist to serve the confronting nature of the film’s narrative; despite their grandeur, they never once consume or overtake the characters or their ordeals.
Young Lewis MacDougall, in only his second film role following Pan, is a real revelation here; not only is he given the responsibility of carrying an entire film, he’s tasked with displaying the kind of perturbation on screen – constant grief, anger, fear and despair – that most films wouldn’t dare burden a child actor with. He’s robust and more than game, and worthy of the twelve award nominations he’s picked up for his breakthrough performance.
At times, the messages of A Monster Calls can feel heavy-handed, even a little forced. The monster’s stories, which often deal with good people capable of bad things, and bad people capable of good things, seem to push the idea that there are no good or bad people, only people. How these fit into the scheme of the story is a little ambiguous, even morally questionable; ultimately it’s down to the viewer to decide. But these are minor squabbles; forget Kong: Skull Island, this is without a doubt the monster movie of the year. One can only hope Bayona will breathe the same magic and life into his next project – a shift to the realm of the Hollywood franchise for the Jurassic World sequel.
A Monster Calls is available in Australian cinemas from July 27
Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films